Newday's Scott Vogel gets lessons in clamming from the Clamity Janes, a group of 4 women from Long Island who started clamming together at the start of the pandemic.  Credit: Randee Daddona

Clam-digging is almost universally misunderstood, it seems to me, even in clam-adjacent locales such as Long Island, where few seem capable of articulating digging’s charms, and fewer still can pronounce the word “quahog” correctly. I was just as clueless myself until a month ago when, having given the matter some thought for roughly 50 years, I finally embarked on my first clamming expedition. Indeed, until then, my entire command of the subject began and ended with the 1967 Elvis movie "Clambake." And yet, from the moment I saw those tiki torch–lit guys in Hang Ten shirts and bikini-clad women dancing the Watusi, I felt a connection, a sudden certainty that somewhere out there was a clamming community waiting for me with open arms and a set of bongos. I was right about everything but the bongos.

And no, it’s not QWAY-hog.

“You’ve got to be really into it, because you’re going to get really filthy, it’s going to be cold, you’re going to get water inside your waders and you’re going to be miserable at times,” said Alex Pressland, a Southold resident and digital engagement specialist. Her first experience clamming was just two years ago, and it immediately prompted an epiphany. “It was just one of those moments where you’re like, ’Oh my God, I’ve never experienced anything so wonderful.’ ”

As it happens, Pressland is one of a group of four women who, like her, came late to mollusk-foraging but are now hopelessly in love with it, so much so they’ve taken to calling themselves the Clamity Janes.

Cheryl Horsfall of Greenport wears her Clamity Janes jacket.

Cheryl Horsfall of Greenport wears her Clamity Janes jacket. Credit: Randee Daddona

“It’s a group of four very diverse people,” said Stephanie Pinerio, who runs a North Fork company selling hand-woven textiles. “And I think under normal circumstances, it’s a group that wouldn’t have naturally come together.” But normal circumstances were in short supply in early 2020, which is when Cheryl Horsfall, who works in advertising and splits her time between Manhattan and Greenport, first suggested the idea of clam-digging.

“There’s something sort of primal about it,” she explained. Horsfall had clammed before, but COVID turned it into a passion. Her enthusiasm for raking Peconic Bay at dawn was palpable, and she sold it to the other women as a potent way to “connect a little deeper with this place that we already loved,” a place, not incidentally, where they could congregate without running afoul of social-distancing guidelines.

“Everything felt very scary at the beginning of the pandemic,” added Claire Weinraub, the fourth Jane and an ABC news producer. “You didn’t know what you could and couldn’t do, or what you were exposing yourself to. But somehow the water felt really safe.”

In some ways, it’s kind of like the closest to God that I get. You feel the wind, you feel the beautiful sun, you hear the birds, you feel the sand on your hands. It’s just a wonderful feeling.

-Claire Weinraub

And it beat trying to find toilet paper or going stir-crazy and arguing at home,” laughed Pressland. Braving March winds and frigid water temperatures doesn’t sound so bad “after you’ve walked the dog for the 15th time,” she added.

“And then Cheryl went and bought Alex and I waders,” Pinerio recalled. “It was like having a superpower. Suddenly, you could put this thing on and be like this character and forage through places you normally would not go.” For a while, it was the thrill of pursuit, and not the day’s haul, that kept the Janes at it. “We were digging for hours and hours, and I think we came home with four quahogs.”

And no, it’s not COW-hog.

“This is what they call a glacial moraine.” It was noon on a brilliant day in August near Orient Point, and Horsfall was ankle-deep in one of the Janes’ favorite clamming spots, a location that shall remain nameless to avoid risking eternal banishment from Clam Nation. Horsfall is no geologist, yet these days she finds herself wading ever deeper into the science, fascinated by the North Fork’s creation at the end of the last Ice Age.

The estuaries left behind by the glaciers’ retreat proved an ideal habitat for our species of quahogs, Mercenaria mercenaria, and, for thousands of years, clams were harvested from Long Island’s tidal flats for food, and then overharvested as commercial interests took hold. The first clam-processing plant opened in Islip in 1865, and as late as the 1970s, more than half of all hard-shell clams eaten in the United States were dredged from Island waters, severely depleting their numbers in the process.

Almost from the moment the Janes began clamming, they saw opportunities to turn their hobby into a business, too, though one with a distinct moral component. “This is a beautiful creature,” said Horsfall of Mercenaria’s shell, noting both the rough symmetry outside and the polished interior, a creaminess interrupted by a splash of purple, out of which Native Americans fashioned wampum. “Even as we pulled that animal out, it made us think, what can we do to put it back?”

Clams get a quick rinse before grilling.

Clams get a quick rinse before grilling. Credit: Randee Daddona

This led the Janes to the Back to the Bays program, a longstanding clam repopulation effort run by the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. As of this writing, one day each week, at happy hour, they partner with Little Ram Oyster Company’s food truck at The Shoals, a new Southold boutique hotel, selling clams prepared with the Janes’ own recipes. Some of the proceeds from that effort go to the CCE, as does money raised from increasingly popular Janes-led clamming expeditions. And there are food, drink and apparel partnerships in the works as well, from a bandana fashioned by a Brooklyn artist who, say press materials, “has been channeling the spirit of our namesake Calamity Jane into a beautiful patterned clamdana that captures a little bit of the Wild West out here on the East End,” to a bespoke quahog-based spirit—yes, you read that right—that the Janes are developing with Matchbook Distilling in Greenport.

Nope, not KWO-hog, either.

Not wanting to overcommit myself financially but keen on gaining exposure to clamming and its rituals, I borrowed a pair of waders from a friend for my first excursion, unaware that when it’s 90 degrees outside, as it was on that initial August afternoon, the temperature inside a pair of waders is at least twice that. For some minutes, I staggered around in woozy delirium, exactly like a costumed Goofy I’d once seen at Disney World just before he passed out.

Still, the beauty that is a North Fork salt marsh eventually revived me, and I grabbed my clam rake, its angles and tines sharper and angrier-looking than anything I’d ever let loose on a pile of leaves. Having not by then read “The Compleat Clammer,” a primer that one of the Janes had called definitive, I first dragged the rake toward me rather than the other way around, which is why a blue crab ended up attaching itself to my leg, which is why a few onlookers witnessed a scene of panicked splashing more befitting a shark attack than a crab clinging to a pair of waders. Half an hour spent strip-mining the marsh yielded only a single clam of legal size, but that was just as well, as I’d neglected to bring along a basket to carry my winnings. I dropped what seemed to me the marsh’s unluckiest quahog ever into my waders, half expecting the creature to be steamed open by the time I reached shore.

“When you feel something that doesn’t move, that’s usually a clam,” Pinerio advised, smoothly raking the bay in a magenta swimsuit and smart white fedora. It was another warm August afternoon, but I was cooler then, having ditched the waders. Plus, I was with the Janes, which was even cooler. Having arrived at yet another of their favorite clamming spots, the four women and their rakes fanned out in an inlet surrounded by sea grasses bowing gently in the breeze. They staked out positions that left them close enough to chat and joke, but not so close that conversation was mandatory. For some minutes the quartet raked quietly, their silence punctuated only by the occasional osprey call or slosh from a clam basket that, in short order, was filled to capacity.

Stephanie Pinerio of Southold walks the shoreline by Hallocks Bay...

Stephanie Pinerio of Southold walks the shoreline by Hallocks Bay in Orient after a morning of clamming. Credit: Randee Daddona

At which point it was time for an impromptu clambake. Pinerio set up a portable grill on the beach, filling it with quahogs; Pressland poured a bottle of white wine into glasses without bases, their stems thrust into the sand like lawn darts; and Weinraub and Horsfall set out snacks. Within minutes, the bivalves had magically popped open, their curly peach flesh ripe for extraction. They were fresher than fresh and suffused with a brininess so perfect, dredging them through melted butter and spritzing them with lemon seemed almost like overkill, not that that stopped anyone.

“I mean this seriously, they are one of the things I could eat every day,”said Pressland before a platter of freshly grilled quahogs. “You can just do them in so many ways. If you want that really briny crunch, you can enjoy them raw.” Pinerio, who does not eat them raw, shook her head. “I love making vongole,” Weinraub chimed in. “I have a whole system for it.”

“We’ve definitely perfected our clam pizza,” Horsfall added, “but we all do stuffies differently. So we have stuffie-offs where we each bring our own versions and put them on the grill.”

Baked clams served by the Clamity Janes.

Baked clams served by the Clamity Janes. Credit: Randee Daddona

The consensus seemed to be that while clams feed the body, clamming feeds the spirit, and in ways that make it uniquely valuable to the present moment. It’s nothing less than an “antidote to this last couple of years,” Horsfall claimed. “When the world is just a crazy place and the news is infuriating and upsetting, to go out with a clam rake—and calmly, quietly dig until you’ve got a bunch of clams—is amazing.”

“It was a lovely way to escape the stress,” agreed Pressland, sounding very much like the British woman she is. “Whether it was from trying to work from home or all the horrible news we were hearing.”

“I’ve known Stephanie for about 15 years, and we’ve gone through a lot of life together,” added Weinraub, whose clamming-loving daughter, five-and-a-half-year-old Josephine, is a Jane-in- training. “Whenever I’m out here, I feel really at peace with her and Cheryl and Alex. In some ways, it’s kind of like the closest to God that I get. You feel the wind, you feel the beautiful sun, you hear the birds, you feel the sand on your hands. It’s just a wonderful feeling.”

Perched on the sand at the end of summer, I felt something too, a connection to the Janes, yes, but also to the wider world, one in which humanity and nature are in partnership rather than opposition, a connection so powerful it almost justified the 50-year wait.

After an afternoon of clamming, the Clamity Janes sit by...

After an afternoon of clamming, the Clamity Janes sit by the fire in Southold. Credit: Randee Daddona

Just days after clamming with the Janes, the weather turned vaguely autumnal, and with it came a shift in the prevailing mood. Swimsuits gave way to waders, and summer’s brio faded into uncertainty about what a change of seasons might bring. By this time, I’d dipped into “Clambake,” by Kathy Neustadt, a nuanced take on the societal significance of this centuries-old tradition that “embodies the roots and the success of civilization, not its negation.”

Clambakes have been considered places to “renew social bonds” and “store up on sociability for the upcoming, more reclusive season of the year,” I read, nodding.

And I thought, too, of Christopher Reaske, who authored “The Compleat Clammer” decades ago on Shelter Island, writing that the enterprise put him “very much in touch with nature and with a largely unchanging part of the world.”

Right now, it’s hard to imagine an unchanging part of the world, as anyone who’s lived through the past few years can attest. But Long Island’s quahog—it’s COE-hog, say it with me!—hints at timelessness. Clamming’s ethos—that civilization is something to celebrate rather than negate—may well be an important remedy to whatever the future may hold. And the Janes may prove to be of equal value, their shellfishing careers born of calamity transcended.

The details

The Clamity Janes offer tours and clamming experiences—from raking in licensed shellfish harvesting zones to culinary classes—for groups of two to four people. Prices start at $75 per person for sessions that run approximately two hours. For more information and scheduling updates, visit @clamityjanes on Instagram or the events page at

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